worry,” said the man from the cruise company. “I’m only phoning to
assure you that your sailing is still on, as scheduled.”
wife and I had booked a trip on the venerable paddlewheeler
In just a week, we were flying to Little Rock to spend a week
steamboating the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.
would I be worried?”
I chuckled nervously.
“Well,” he replied, “I thought you might have heard the news.
The company has filed for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy protection.”
was last October.
The company had been having financial problems, and September 11
dealt the final blow.
had already cruised once on the reigning monarch of the Mississippi and
its tributaries, and had loved it.
It would be hard not to. The Delta Queen is a genuine American
institution, 75 years old in 2002 and officially a National Historic
special act of Congress exempts her from certain fire regulations because
her superstructure is mainly wood.
She has hosted celebrities from Helen Hayes to Johnny Cash, from
Princess Margaret to Jimmy Carter.
in California for the Sacramento River but moved to the Mississippi system
in 1947, the Queen is a celebration of Victorian style.
She is trimmed out in mahogany and brass, with Tiffany lampshades,
crystal chandeliers and grand staircases.
Intimate for a commercial vessel, a maximum of 174 passengers enjoy
all outside cabins furnished with antiques.
tone is timeless elegance and serenity.
No gambling, video games or TV.
No phones in cabins.
For early wakeups, a steward knocks and brings you coffee and
is plenty of live music and nightly dancing, but little of the typical
cruise ship “are we having fun yet” pressure.
Excellent lectures inform about local history and river wildlife.
But many passengers are content simply watching the levees slip
past from their rocking chairs.
vessel we boarded for our early November trip was still the class act we
expected: smart, clean and well maintained.
Officers and staff did their stiff-upper-lip best to ignore the
bankruptcy and get on with the job.
We cruised placidly up the Arkansas to Fort Smith, a frontier
outpost on the Oklahoma border, where we spent a day and night.
the route, people turned out to hail the Queen, and we returned the favor.
At each bridge or river lock our keyboard meister Jazzou Jones
poured out “America the Beautiful” or “Alexander’s Rag Time
Band” or “Dixie” on the steam calliope.
Drivers stopped their cars to get out and wave.
Kids jumped, frolicked and hooted.
With our flags whipping in the breeze, we were a floating carnival.
for all the efforts to keep spirits high, we were sailing under a a dark
meant tight security.
No guests or farewell parties allowed.
Photo IDs were required for re-boarding at ports of call.
Dams and locks along the Arkansas were cordoned off and guarded.
Near a nuclear station, anti-aircraft missiles were poised.
Because this might be the Queen’s last cruise to towns that know
her well, TV and press reporters turned out in force.
over the rail on each side were large, colorful banners, “Save the Delta
seemed like a cry of desperation.
Everyone knew this could be the swansong for a vessel we had come
to love. For
Captain Mike Williams, it was his last week.
Another skipper would take the helm until year’s end.
Then the boat would be tied up while the bankruptcy court decided
her fate. Our
purveyor of river history and lore, Toots Maloy, and her banjo-picking
entertainer husband Mike Gentry, both of them veterans of decades with the
company, also faced an indefinite layoff.
Most kitchen and dining room workers were African Americans from
New Orleans with many years on the river, secure jobs not easily replaced.
Delta Queen herself had always been a popular and profitable boat, so
there were bitter mutterings about who was to blame.
Until the early 1990s, she and her newer and larger sister, the
Mississippi Queen, belonged to a small, private New Orleans company with
roots back to 1890.
This meant friendly continuity that passengers appreciated.
One couple we befriended have sailed on the Queen more than forty
times, even celebrating their golden anniversary on a cruise. They got to
know the officers and crew so well that each time they boarded it was like
1992 saw the company go public and expand rapidly under the name American
A third, giant steamboat was built for the Mississippi and a large
liner was purchased for Hawaiian cruises.
In the latter 1990s, with federal funding guarantees, new ships
were built to cruise the Columbia River and the US East Coast.
Keels were laid for two giant ships aimed at a nearly saturated
Delays and cost-overruns plagued these liners.
Meanwhile, management was being moved from New Orleans to Florida,
creating further upheaval.
2001 economic downturn dented an already tight cash flow.
September 11 killed off half the bookings.
Now US taxpayers are on the hook for more than $ 200 million, while
over 2000 employees have lost their jobs, plus another 1000 at the
Mississippi shipyard with the unfinished ships.
A sad debacle.
last two days of the cruise we spent heading upstream on the Mississippi
to Memphis. Disembarking,
with farewells to new-found friends, is always sad.
But this time was especially poignant.
We had looked forward to taking one of the Civil War trips along
the Tennessee River in the next few years.
And perhaps steaming far up the Ohio to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.
But now, we wondered, would it ever happen?
it was a wonderful surprise after Christmas to learn that there was still
emergency management team is trying to re-create the small, niche Delta
Queen Steamboat company of old, based in New Orleans and operating only
the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen.
And former Delta Queen lounge pianist and chanteuse, Phyllis Dale,
now a travel agent, is spearheading a grassroots PR campaign to “Save
So far, she has gathered nearly 2000 letters of support, mainly
from former passengers.
With the help of other former employees and loyal long-time
passengers, and by using a website and chatline, she is lobbying
celebrities, politicians and chambers of commerce, especially in the river
towns that have benefited from the steamboat traffic.
federal bankruptcy court has tentatively approved the corporate
The Mississippi Queen is now scheduled to start running again in
May, with the Delta Queen following in August.
To reassure travel agents and individuals that booking with the
pared-down company is safe, all monies go into an escrow account and will
not be disbursed until the sailing.
romance of the Delta Queen is infectious.
With any luck, the tradition of steamboating will be alive for many
more years on the rivers of America’s heartland.
cruise schedules and reservations, the website address is: www.deltaqueen.com,
or phone 800-543-1949.
information on this unique campaign, the website address is: www.saveourqueens.com.
Email: email@example.com (TOM KOPPEL)
is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday,
Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C.,
Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc.
Tom is now working on his third book as well.
about this writer.)